Reckless Populists

Failures mount for Donald Trump’s unhinged European fanboys

World by Gwynne Dyer

There is nothing wrong to participate in a sex party of any kind,” said a source in the European Parliament. “However, such kinds of meetings with many people are illegal under the coronavirus laws.”

To be specific, 25 naked men attending a loud party above a gay bar in central Brussels is clearly against Belgium’s coronavirus laws, which allow no more than four people to meet indoors, so somebody called the police. At least three of those arrested were Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

It was particularly unfortunate for József Szájer. He’s a senior founding member of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, an ultra-nationalist, populist, authoritarian grouping that defends ‘family values’ and condemns homosexuality, but he was arrested while fleeing that Nov. 27 orgy (with ecstasy pills in his backpack). It’s hard to feel much sympathy for him.

Szájer was a leading anti-gay agitator in Fidesz, and boasts that he personally drafted the changes to the Hungarian constitution that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. He has now resigned as the leader of the Hungarian delegation to the European Parliament, and Fidesz.

But there’s a bigger story here.

There was another scandal in Hungary that week, in which Szilárd Demeter, a senior cultural official linked to Fidesz, wrote an opinion piece for a pro-government outlet comparing Budapest-born American billionaire George Soros, a Jew who fled the Holocaust, to Adolf Hitler. Demeter also called the European Union “George Soros’s gas chamber”, and claimed that Hungary and Poland, the two Eastern European EU members with extreme-right populist governments, are “the new Jews” of Europe.

It’s utterly unhinged — and yet it sounds vaguely familiar.

The unbridled arrogance, the self-pity, the shameless, hysterical exaggeration are all hallmarks of the new breed of ‘illiberal’ populists — and when they think they are losing, they always up the ante. I’m thinking, of course, of Donald Trump’s recent electoral defeat and his subsequent behaviour.

Could that extraordinary recklessness be a communicable disease? Could it somehow be spreading to Trump’s acolytes overseas as well? Well, consider Poland.

The Catholic, ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been in power in Poland since 2015, elected by the same older, less well educated, non-urban, deeply religious coalition that backs populist takeovers elsewhere. And as in other populist-ruled countries, there has been a steady erosion both in human rights and in respect for democratic norms.

The PiS was re-elected just last year, and its leader, 71-year-old Jarosław Kaczyński, was widely supposed to have his finger on Poland’s pulse. But it all fell apart when a PiS-appointed court declared in late October that abortions would not be permitted even in cases of severe fetal abnormality where the child would die immediately after birth.

Poland already had tight restrictions on abortion rights, but this turned out to be the last straw. Millions of young people, and especially young women, filled the streets of Poland’s cities in the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Communism in 1989. “I wish I could abort my government”, said one popular banner.

The demos continued every day until a new lockdown was declared, and the PiS has now backed down, postponing the publication of the court’s decision indefinitely. But something has definitely changed in Poland: support for Kaczyński has now plunged to only 30 per cent.

Then there’s President Jair Bolsonaro, or ‘Tropical Trump’, whose favoured candidates were thrashed in all Brazil’s big cities in local elections last month, and the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, dubbed ‘Britain Trump’ by The Donald, who is now trailing the opposition leader in the polls for the first time ever.

It’s just straws in the wind at this stage, but the defeat of Trump, the populist standard-bearer, is creating a sense in other populist-ruled countries that the juggernaut has stalled.

The effect hasn’t reached Asia yet — Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India and President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are still riding very high in the polls. But the main thing the populists had going for them was momentum, and in Western countries it seems to be dropping off.

Was there really a ‘coat-tail effect’? Hard to say. After all, both the PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary came to power before Trump was elected in late 2016. But populist leaders across the West seem to believe that somehow or other their fates are tied to Trump’s. It shows in the growing recklessness of their behaviour, and in the frequency of their failures.

Does this mean they are all destined to vanish in his wake? Probably not, but that would be nice.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work) makes a great holiday gift. Order it through your favourite local bookseller.